WASHINGTON – When someone suggested to me in early 2014 that the National Press Club ought to invite a fading reality TV star to give a political speech, I responded with a joke:
"Every time I see Donald Trump's hair, I think: 'Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive.' "
I often got a laugh with that line, but Trump's appearance at the Press Club four years ago Sunday was no laughing matter.
No one knew it at the time, least of all me, but American history took a shocking turn that day. It's when the P.T. Barnum who became president got his start on the political stage. And I sat right next to him over lunch.
I was chairman of the National Press Club Speakers Committee at the time, so it was my task to greet Trump and chat him up at the head table.
At first he seemed so different from the man I knew from TV and Twitter. He was unfailingly polite.
But then he started his speech: a 35-minute stream-of-consciousness rant that veered wildly from one topic to the next and then back again. It was kind of hard to tell, but the talk seemed sort of rooted in two main themes: Trump's great new Washington hotel and everything about Barack Obama's America, which he saw as decidedly less than great.
"I will tell you this, that our country which I love very dearly, is in serious trouble," he said early on. "But the old Post Office building right down the road on Pennsylvania Avenue is not ... It’ll be one of the great hotels of the world, and you'll have it right here in Washington and it’s going to be really something."
Then, after a brief detour into his personal history, in which he bragged about writing the biggest-selling business book of all time, Trump started grousing that the Obamacare website cost $5 billion when his websites cost only $3.
Next, somehow, Trump turned to something I told him over lunch, sort of.
"But it’s all about winning," he said. "Like I'm watching over here, and this guy, Buffalo News, he’s telling me Buffalo News is doing great. That's good, right?"
Trump then moved on to leadership and branding and his strong belief in compassion and back to Obamacare – "It's a disaster!" – and on to a prolonged discussion of the late football coach Vince Lombardi and winning, which led him back to more media analysis.
"I will tell you today, you have Twitter and you have Facebook and you have Instagram and you have all of these different things that are so amazing," he said. "I have millions of followers, millions. I don’t do press releases anymore. If I want a press release, I just put it on Twitter and I've got a press release. It’s so great. It’s like owning the New York Times without the losses, if you think about it."
Noting that media outlets reported on his tweets, Trump said: "I mean, I love it, frankly. I sit there at 3 in the morning, ding, ding, ding, you know, our country is going to hell, we must stop it."
Which led Trump to what seemed to be a new, third point of his speech.
"We need leadership!" he said.
My mind – shaped as it was by generations of newspaper editors ordering me to organize my stories in a coherent manner – felt numb at this point. But when I looked out at the audience, I saw more than 200 faces staring directly at Trump, rapt in his words.
Before long, he inevitably turned to the thought he might run for president.
"Think of it, I'm not running. Because a lot of people said, 'Oh, he’ll never run because he doesn't want to reveal his finances.' I said, 'Hey, I'll reveal them. I'm so proud of what I've done.' ”
That launched Trump on a world tour of American failure that ended, as the speech did, in China.
"We have to take our business back from China and other countries," he said. "We have to take it back. And you will see, I said it, winning, it’s about winning. We've got to start winning."
The audience – few of them journalists – responded with a roar of applause. And then Myron Belkind, the Press Club president at the time, started asking Trump questions, including two that remain of interest today.
Asked if he regretted questioning whether Obama was born in America – even though it was proven that he was – Trump said: "Not even a little bit. I don't regret it. Why would I regret it?"
And asked how he would deal with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, Trump replied as follows:
"I was in Russia, I was in Moscow recently, and I spoke indirectly and directly with President Putin, who could not have been nicer."
There was more, but it's time, I think, for us to look back.
I never realized that day that I was watching the birth of a political phenomenon. I never for a second thought that Trump's free-range speechifying would brand him as authentic in the heartland, and that's my bad.
I should have realized that most people in America don't speak in the poetry of Obama or the calculated wonkery of Hillary Clinton. A lot of Americans do just as Trump does and say whatever comes into their head. And kudos to Trump for talking like a man of the people about jobs and trade and other issues that really matter to the working class.
Pay attention, though, to all the phrases above that are in boldface. They tell us something telling, too, about Trump – because every one of those statements is wrong.
Trump's "The Art of the Deal" was not the biggest business best-seller of all time. The Obamacare website did not cost $5 billion. I never told Trump The Buffalo News was "doing great"; I told him it was doing better than most print newspapers at the time. Trump never revealed his finances, at least not his tax returns. And there is no evidence Trump met with Putin on his 2013 trip to Moscow.
Those misstatements seem quite relevant four years later, in the midst of a chaotic Trump presidency beset by scandal, led by a president who made at least 3,001 false or misleading statements in his first 15 months in office.
All of which brings to mind a familiar phrase that, like Trump's Press Club appearance, is no joke. In fact, it may be the central takeaway of the Trump presidency to date:
Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we practice to deceive.
- President Trump travels to Nashville for a campaign rally.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks on the annual report on international religious freedom.
- The Supreme Court issues orders and is also expected to deliver opinions.
- The annual Scripps National Spelling Bee gets under way.
- The Brennan Center for Justice holds a briefing on proposed campaign finance reforms to prevent foreign spending on U.S. elections.
- The Washington Post reports that President Trump's new White House team is all about Trump.
- The New York Times explores Trump's fondness for conspiracy theories
- .The Atlantic says America's relationship with China is increasingly troubled.
- The National Review tells us that the post-war world order is no more.
- And Vox explains why gasoline prices have shot up.
Story topics: The Briefing